Early warning systems and mobile apps have been developed, but getting people to pay attention still remains a challenge.
By: Marc Herman
Ten years ago today, an earthquake off the west coast of Aceh, Indonesia, led to the deadliest natural disaster in recent human history. The Red Cross estimates that at least 230,000 people died in the Indian Ocean tsunami, three-quarters of whom were in Aceh. In the decade since the disaster, early warning systems have been developed to warn people living in seismic and coastal areas of dangerous tides. What’s still unclear, a decade on, is how to design those systems to reach the greatest number of people in a moment when running inland is the difference between life and death.
When the U.S. government’s Pacific Tsunami Warning Center realized the magnitude of the danger in 2004, British insurer Lloyds wrote in a 2010 note, “It frantically tried to warn countries in the region. But it had no information on who to contact, so resorted to asking the State Department to relay a warning message. That alert led to some evacuations, but for many it came too late.”
A year and a half after the 2004 disaster, a number of rudimentary early warning systems developed that would bypass municipal communications and send SMS warnings to individual mobile phones. In Indonesia, however, they were not yet fully implemented when a second tsunami struck.
Located 800 miles south of the site of the 2004 disaster, the 2006 wave was neither as long nor as strong as the tsunami that had hit Aceh. Still, at least 600 died, and more than 75,000 people had to flee their homes on the west coast of the island of Java after a tide cresting nearly four stories leveled a series of coastal towns.
A study by the Disaster Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan, found that, again, no warnings had come: “Because there was no tsunami warning system in place for the southern coast of Java, people escaping the tsunami needed to respond to weak earthquake shaking and observations of the initial outward flow of the sea.” Essentially, people along the shore had been left to figure out for themselves whether something was coming over the horizon. At least 800 did not escape.
In the past four years, a series of nonprofit, government, and for-profit app developers have created pocket tsunami warning systems for smartphones. In the U.S., the Pacific Disaster Center, a project of the University of Hawaii funded in part by the U.S. Department of Defense, claims that 1.5 million people in 206 countries have downloaded its Disaster Alert app. (The latter figure is slightly suspect: The world only has 206 countries, including Taiwan.) It curates seismic and meteorological data and sends warnings for risks, including tsunami conditions. Then, if something is coming your way, it sends you a message.
People do seem to be using the app, at least according to its developers. According to PDC’s spokesperson, Jamie Swan, the app has narrowed its warnings and personalized them based on location and severity of an event. Instead of a generalized text such as “Indonesia is under a tsunami warning,” users will be notified with more specific information, such as “Northern Sumatra had an earthquake an hour ago; call your local fire department.”
The app does not display all events—just those that are potentially hazardous to people, property, and assets—but it will tell you if dangerous weather conditions are heading your way. Sounds useful if you live on a beach in a seismic zone. The recurring problem for such systems, however, is getting people’s attention. The 2004 tsunami came early in the morning, and apps like the PDC’s only work if people open them and look at them all the time. Even if you do have your phone out, if you’ve just received 11 texts in a row from your boss, you might miss the one telling you to run like hell.
That’s where the new personal warning systems are still vulnerable, Swan said. “People always need to rely on local officials.”
With that in mind, a German detection system that uses GPS data to identify tsunami risks was transferred to the Indonesian government in 2011 as a way to speed municipal emergency response. Created by Germany’s equivalent to NASA, the system records data from a combination of seismic and coastal water sensors and sends that data for analysis to a central tsunami warning center in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, located along the shoreline.
The system had been online barely a year when two 8.0 magnitude earthquakes struck in nearly the same place along Aceh’s coast as the 2004 tsunami did. This time around, Indonesia finally caught a break. While warnings were sent out, including details of the quakes, likely direction of incoming tides, and evacuation routes, the quakes did not produce deadly tsunamis. But people did move quickly because of the notifications. Hospitals had evacuated in nearby Thailand, and Indian cities moved some populations in from the coastline.
In hindsight, the 2012 incident has come to look like a success story, where several countries were able to detect a disaster risk both with their own residents’ common sense and the beginnings of communication with local officials. Had there been a tsunami, residents would have actually known it was coming and would have already been retreating to higher ground.